Thursday, July 15, 2010

To Read is to Travel, but Dystopia is a Holiday

Due to circumstances beyond my control, my opportunity to take a summer vacation of any kind is looking less and less likely. As my fellow TKers are jetting off to all kinds of beautiful locales, seaside or otherwise, I look woefully down at my desk, bemoaning the paleness of my legs from lack of sun and the darkness of my undereye circles from lack of sleep. And I can only take pleasure in the imaginary vacations that my extracurricular (hah!) reading can provide.

When I was little, my literary vacations were much more extraordinary. For years I wanted to run away and live in a boxcar, a secret garden, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (I didn't discover Narnia or Uriel until I was much too old to appreciate them as vacation spots.) In reality I was taking extraordinary trips as well, but it was through the books I was reading that I felt transported; my family still tells stories about my predilection to reading on long car rides while beautiful vistas passed by unnoticed. I was like Matilda, holed up with a mug of something delicious and warm, and I went on "olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. . . . to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village." As Dahl clearly knew when writing this brilliant bookworm of a character, "Nowadays you can go anywhere in the world in a few hours, and nothing is fabulous any more."

The unintended side effect of becoming an adult is that, of course, the more you see of the real world, the less likely it is you'll be sufficiently transported by what you read. Imagination can die with experience, and the real world becomes such an overwhelming referent for what you read that imaginary journeys can lose their satisfaction. I've been throwing myself into the mysteries of Martin Walker (set in the gastronomical wonderland of the Perigord region of France), the sensuality of an ruined Italian castle in Martin Amis's The Pregnant Widow, and to rural China with Pearl Buck, but I find myself consistently pulled back to earth by the smelly, sweat-sticky conditions of summer in New York, and find it hard to feel uplifted by my temporary travels.

The only solution I've found this summer, quite surprisingly, has been by going to those locations I'm least likely to find satisfying: those of the ruined apocalyptic wastelands of our imaginary future. Dystopian literature is having a bit of a moment, maybe because the only way we can feel better about our day-to-day reality is by imagining how it could be much, much worse. Even if my day sucks, at least I'm not getting overrun by the plague-ridden vampires ("jumps") of Justin Cronin's The Passage (or, thank god, the emo-sparkly-immortals that preceded them.) And even when the dystopian future proves bleak, it can still proves immensely entertaining. Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, set in the impending doom of 2018, sets its dystopian predictions on the increasing vapidity of human interaction: tethered to their ubiquitous äppärät (like iPhones but more insidious), the brilliant and lovely nerdiness of Lenny Abramov goes unappreciated, as he cannot possibly rate as a HNWI (high-net-worth individual) worthy of intellectual or sexual acknowledgment. The hilarity of Shteyngart's universe (as poignantly drawn as any satire can be) provides enough contrast to the world I know that it makes me feel like I'm escaping to a more pleasant daily reality. In the future, as we've imagined it, life may be bleak, but it still has its diversions. (And if I have to choose one to live in, I'll go with Margaret Atwood's version. At least it has Scrabble.)

P.S. Soylent Green is people!

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